Sluggish Sweet 16 dwarfed by Electric Elite Eight


Rich Sugg, Kansas City Star | TNS

Auburn’s Anfernee McLemore sails past Kentucky’s PJ Washington for a shot during the second half of the NCAA Midwest Regional Final on March 31 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Auburn beat Kentucky, 77-71, in overtime.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

The opening rounds of the 2019 NCAA Tournament were largely predictable. Save for one or two upsets, the top seeds held serve heading into the second weekend. The Sweet 16 featured a number of blowouts and left fans hungry for more.

But the Elite Eight did not disappoint with heroic performances and close victories. And after the dust had settled, upstart programs took the reins from college basketball’s blue bloods, as Michigan State, Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn advanced to the Final Four.

The first team to secure its spot in Saturday’s Final Four games was No. 3 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were not considered by many to have much of a shot at making it out of their region of the bracket, especially considering that the last two national runner-ups, Gonzaga and Michigan, occupied the one and two seeds, respectively. But the long arms of the Red Raiders on defense proved too much for the experienced top seeds to surmount.

Their Sweet 16 game against Michigan lived up to its billing as a defensive battle, but it ended in a lopsided victory for the Red Raiders. Texas Tech held the Wolverines to only 5 percent shooting from three and 33 percent from the floor to advance with a 63-44 win.

In the Elite Eight, the Red Raiders then had to go through top-seeded Gonzaga, which had just dispatched Florida State a couple of days earlier. After easy wins in their Sweet 16 matchups, a trio of all-Americans posted outstanding performances, but it was team defense that played the largest role in Texas Tech’s 75-69 win.

Junior center Rui Hachimura and redshirt junior forward Brandon Clarke combined for 40 points and 18 rebounds for the Zags. For the Red Raiders, expected lottery pick Jarett Culver continued to impress with his length and athleticism on the way to 19 points and five rebounds.

The Virginia Cavaliers were the next to punch their tickets. In a cathartic postgame ceremony following their Elite Eight victory over Purdue, it was clear how eager head coach Tony Bennett and his returning players were to absolve themselves of the historic 20-point loss to No. 16 UMBC in the opening round of last year’s tournament.

On the way to its first Final Four in 35 years, Virginia first had to meet the No. 12 Oregon Ducks for its Sweet 16 matchup in Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. The Cavs won 53-49 on Thursday night in familiar fashion. Virginia, particularly star junior guard Kyle Guy, shot poorly, but its trademark “pack-line” defense was enough to overcome the offensive deficiencies.  

But as they moved on to the Elite Eight, the script was flipped on the Cavs. Two days later, they returned to the KFC Yum! Center to face No. 3 Purdue. The Boilermakers were fresh off of a 99-94 overtime upset of No. 2 Tennessee.

After their defense dominated through the first three rounds, the Cavs were tested in the Elite Eight. Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards put on a heroic showing, posting 42 points on 10-19 3-point shooting, but the box score fails to account for both the degree of difficulty and pressure that accompanied his 14 field goals.

As a team, Purdue shot almost 50 percent from the field while the Cavs were held to 42 percent shooting. But the Boilermakers were unable to keep Virginia off of the offensive glass. The Cavs turned 17 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points and after a 10-foot floater from junior forward Mamadi Diakite beat the second half buzzer forced overtime, scratched out a 80-75 win.

Auburn, much like Texas Tech, is a newly minted basketball power, and was the third team to earn a spot among college basketball’s elite, advancing to its first Final Four in school history.

The 2019 edition of Auburn basketball has been eerily similar to last year’s iteration. Both squads won the SEC tournament, finished ranked in the AP top 25 and were awarded No. 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Bruce Pearl returned a balanced mix of youth and experience, which has paid off for him so far in the postseason.

After a narrow first-round win over No. 13 New Mexico State, the Tigers breezed past No. 4 Kansas and No. 1 North Carolina. Then, on Sunday, they met No. 2 Kentucky for part three, after the Wildcats had won both regular season matchups.

It turns out that third time was the charm for the Tigers, as they beat the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime for their 12th straight win. After losing star first-year forward Chuma Okeke, the backcourt tandem of senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper combined for 50 of the Tigers’ 77 points. Harper also added four rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks for good measure.

In the last game before the week-long hiatus before the Final Four begins, traditional powers Duke and Michigan State collided in the East Regional Final. After surviving with one point wins in each of the previous two rounds, Duke’s luck finally ran out, as first-year phenom R.J. Barrett missed a pair of key free throws late in the game and the Blue Devils lost 68-67 to Michigan State.

Despite the late mistakes, Duke’s first-years were still outstanding. The combo of Barrett and classmate Zion Williamson scored 21 and 24 points, respectively, while Williamson added 14 rebounds and three blocks.

But the cool heads of the experienced Spartans squad prevailed. Junior guard Cassius Winston continued his success in the postseason, posting a 20-point, 10-assist double-double to pace the Spartans, who advance to their 10th Final Four in history.

The Spartans are the only team that might be considered a “blue blood” left competing for a national title. Of the three programs located outside of the state of Michigan, there are a grand total of two pre-2019 Final Four appearances and only one national title.

The Spartans clearly hold the experience advantage, but if next weekend shakes out how this past one has, it won’t matter much.

The Final Four tips off on Saturday night from Minneapolis. Auburn and Virginia play at 6:09 p.m. and Texas Tech-Michigan State will follow immediately after. Tip off for the second game is slated for 8:49 p.m. and both games will be broadcast on CBS.